By Daniel V. Cabrera

The tilapia industry has remained flat for the past five years. Despite efforts of both the government and the private sector to push the industry to a higher level, annual production remains stagnant at a level of 250,000 to 270,000 metric tons.

Of this volume, 93% comes from Luzon while Visayas and Mindanao contribute one and six percent, respectively. Within Luzon, production is concentrated in Central Luzon and Batangas.

One of the five pillars recommended by Santeh for sustainable aquaculture solutions for the tilapia industry is the use of extruded feeds; these are the kind of feeds that are more digestible and can easily be absorbed by the fish, thus, enabling rapid growth and production.

Production is not growing because of numerous challenges such as fishkill, the need to limit the number of fish cage units in Taal Lake, availability of only quality fry, low survival rates, and unpredictable weather due to climate change. There is a need for a long-term solution if we want a sustained growth of the industry.

The way to grow is through more efficient operation of existing farms and new investments in tilapia farming. Efficient operations mean higher survival rates and lower FCR (feed conversion ratio), both of which lead to higher production and higher profits in existing farms. This in turn will encourage expansion and new investments. It is well then to focus on increasing survival and lowering the FCR.

Survival rate is the net result of two factors: fry quality and water quality. During the 1990s, when GIFT was newly introduced—and later superseded by GET EXCEL—the usual survival rate was 80 to 90%. Now a farmer is lucky to get 50%.

Sometimes, it can be as low as 30%. Farmers are quick to blame the low survival rate on fry quality. With the proliferation of hatcheries in Central Luzon and elsewhere, the quality of fry can no longer be assured. Some hatcheries may no longer be careful in breeder selection and sourcing, or worse, may be collecting feral fry with unknown pedigrees. It is clear that in order to protect their investment, it is important for the farmers to be careful with their fry and fingerling sources.

The second factor, water quality, is within the control of growers. By practicing proper water management and feed management, dissolved oxygen levels in the water will be at the optimum and ammonia can be prevented from increasing. Obviously, the use of extruded feeds with a high degree of stability and digestibility is necessary. This will effectively reduce FCR and increase profitability. Farmers should shift from being “feed-price conscious” to being “feeding-cost conscious.”

As was previously mentioned, tilapia production is very low in Visayas and Mindanao. For some reason, there are not as many freshwater fishponds in Mindanao as there are in Central Luzon, and the existing lakes are either already full of cages, or too cold, or ecotourism is prioritized by local governments. But there are several thousand underproductive brackishwater fishponds. Even if the saline tilapia strain has not taken off, there is no reason why the existing strains cannot be used in those fishponds where salinity does not go very high.

In Indonesia, the ordinary strain of tilapia are stocked and grown successfully in the brackishwater fishponds of Aceh province. One difference is that in Indonesia, the industry practice is to use only large fingerlings (10 cm), whether in freshwater or brackishwater. Tilapia is more tolerant of salinity at bigger sizes. Stocking at bigger sizes also ensures a shorter culture period and, more importantly, higher survival rates. This means lower FCR and more efficient operations.

At present, Filipino tilapia growers purchase their fry direct from hatcheries at Size 22 and stock these directly in their ponds. Since there are no nursery operators producing large size fingerlings in the Philippines, the best option is to maintain a small nursery pond where the fry can initially be stocked at high density and grown to large size fingerlings before stocking in the grow-out ponds. This is already being done by some operators.

In some areas, or due to the unpredictable weather, pond drying may not be possible during preparation. One good practice is the use of probiotics for bioremediation. This will degrade metabolic wastes, especially ammonia and sulphides, into mineral form so as to turn them into nutrients that can be used by phytoplankton. Probiotics are also useful even during the culture period to help maintain water quality. There are many products available in the market so one has to be careful as to which product to use.

For those who would like an additional income source, polyculture is a good option. Many farmers in Pampanga stock vannamei shrimps with their tilapia or milkfish. With only the cost of shrimp fry as an additional expense, the expected additional income from the secondary crop will more than offset the cost of feeds, adding profit to the operations.

To sum up, Santeh is recommending five pillars of sustainable aquaculture solutions for the tilapia industry: a) use of bigger fingerlings; b) use of extruded feeds, c) proper feeding management; d) use of safe biological products; and e) polyculture. Santeh’s technical sales representatives can provide guidance for free as part of pre- and post- sale service. Practical knowledge of farmers as well as caretakers is better when combined with knowledge based on science.

Santeh Feeds Corporation, as an industry leader, considers as its mission the promotion of sustainable farming methodologies for Filipinos not only for tilapia but also for all other aquaculture species. The local tilapia industry is vibrant and full of challenges. Filipinos must cooperate to make this industry sustainable and profitable for fish farmers as a way to provide safe and affordable tilapia to every Filipino.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s May 2018 issue.